Pandora Report: 12.23.2022

Happy Holidays from the Pandora Report! This week we are covering updates on China’s rollback of Zero-COVID policies, outcomes of the Ninth BWC RevCon, the new White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, and more. There will be no issue next week for the holidays, so we will see you next year!

The Paper Tiger of Pandemic Response? China’s Rollback of Zero-COVID

Shockingly low case counts, the conclusion of the Party’s Central Economic Work Conference, thick smoke emanates from Beijing crematoriums, and reports of a closed-door meeting of the National Health Commission hinting at much higher infection and death counts than those officially reported…The situation in China is complex and dire right now. Rather than packing this weekly issue full of extended analysis on China’s Zero-COVID exit, there is a separate post available here covering everything from confusion over case counts, China’s real estate sector woes creating even more danger for the economy, urban-rural healthcare disparities, and more.

Harbin’s Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by the Japanese Army Unit 731 Adds New Display

China’s Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by the Japanese Army Unit 731, located in the city of Harbin in the northeast, has recently added a new exhibit with more than 20,000 artifacts. The museum, housed in what was the base for the infamous Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731, features artifacts and exhibits dedicated to Japan’s use of biological weapons and other atrocities committed by the unit during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Known officially as the Kwantung Army’s Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department, Unit 731 was commanded by LTG Shiro Ishii and conducted BW testing, controlled dehydration, vivisections, and more primarily on Chinese and Korean prisoners.

Jin Chengmin, the museum’s curator, told state media that the new exhibit includes “2,862 incriminating artifacts, 23,000 pages of historical files, and 810 minutes of video footage, which were obtained through archaeological excavations, transnational forensics, and academic research since 2015.” This includes a roster of those affiliated with the unit, showing that it had nearly 3,500 members. It is thought that 12,000 prisoners, most of them Chinese, were killed at Unit 731’s base in Harbin, with many more killed in field offices throughout Manchuria. The United States, through GEN Douglas MacArthur, traded those involved at Unit 731 immunity for information about their experiments, according to former US officers and declassified documents. Images of the new exhibit are available in Xinhua‘s article about the new displays.

Pandemic Preparedness and Response Gets Permanent Spot at the White House

Ebola czars, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and other ad hoc positions created at the White House in response to everything from HIV/AIDS to Zika could soon be a thing of the past as bipartisan members of Congress look to establish the White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy. According to STAT next year’s funding package includes provisions establishing this office by hiring a director and up to 25 staff. Furthermore, “The new director’s main responsibilities would be to advise the president on preparing for pandemics and other biological threats, to coordinate response activities across the federal government — including research into new countermeasures and distribution of medical supplies — and to evaluate the government’s readiness. The director would also be a member of the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council.” The director would also have to lead an interagency working group that would evaluate biosecurity and preparedness, touching on an area many believe is under prioritized.

It is not clear how much this office would overlap with the existing NSC Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense or whether it would have its own budget. Furthermore, as STAT highlights, “One of the most important factors for the new office’s success would be whether officials leading the defense and health departments truly believe that the new director actually has the backing and authority of the president to direct spending plans and coordinate resources, Bernard said.” The Senate passed the version of the $1.7 trillion spending bill containing these measures last night. It is expected to pass the House before being signed by President Biden.

Outcomes of the Ninth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference

As we discussed last week, the Ninth BWC RevCon wrapped up recently, bringing a few important changes for the the next few years aimed at improving implementation of the BWC. The US Department of State released this press statement on RevCon this week:

“The Ninth Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference concluded on December 16 with the adoption by consensus of a final document, which launches a new, expert-led process to strengthen the BWC to address the challenges of the future. We congratulate Special Representative Ken Ward and his team for their hard work during the three weeks of the Review Conference and the numerous preparatory meetings over the past year. We also commend Ambassador Leonardo Bencini, President of the Review Conference, for his dedication in bringing the States Parties to consensus on a final document.”

“The Review Conference established a new Working Group that will make recommendations on measures to strengthen the BWC. These will address advances in science and technology, confidence-building and transparency, compliance and verification, as well as national implementation measures, international cooperation, and preparedness and response.”

“While the final consensus document did not include all the improvements proposed by the United States, we are confident this document is a step forward in improving implementation of the Convention. We will continue to work with other countries who share the goal of a world free of biological weapons, while ensuring that legitimate biological and public health research continues under effective safety and security guidelines and assisting other countries to meet that goal.”

The Youth For Biosecurity initiative also recently released its “Youth Recommendations for the Ninth Review Conference of the BWC,” which was presented by youth delegates to senior leaders at RevCon a couple weeks ago. The Youth for Biosecurity Initiative is “…a project funded under European Union Council Decision 2019/97 which aims at informing young scientists – in particular from the Global South – about their critical role in biosafety and biosecurity and bolstering global capacities against the misuse of biological agents.” The group’s recommendations cover issues in cooperation and assistance; developments in S&T; strengthening national implementation; assistance, response, and preparedness; and institutional strengthening of the convention.

“Experts Debate the Risks of Made-to-Order DNA”

Michael Schulson recently published this piece in Undark discussing concerns about synthetic DNA advancements and services. Biodefense Graduate Program Director Dr. Greg Koblentz is quoted throughout the piece discussing the challenges the government faces in trying to regulate something like this. Schulson writes, “It’s not that I’m worried about something happening tomorrow. But the reality is, this capability is increasingly powerful in terms of how long the DNA fragments can be, what you can create with them, the ability of recipients to then assemble the DNA fragments into a new virus,” said Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense researcher at George Mason University. “This is the kind of thing that we really should be more proactive on — and try to get ahead of the curve.”

Of companies’ efforts to screen customers, he writes “This is the first legal requirement in the U.S. for a user of synthetic DNA to pay attention to the security safeguards that are in place for what they’re ordering,” said Koblentz, the George Mason University expert, who consulted on the bill…Ultimately, Koblentz said, the federal government should do more to incentivize good screening. For example, major federal science funders could give grants on the condition that institutions buy their DNA from more secure providers, using their market power, he said, “to require researchers to use biosecurity safeguards.”

Schulson also mentions a piece Koblentz wrote in 2020 for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists-“A biotech firm made a smallpox-like virus on purpose. Nobody seems to care”.

“Future Planning for the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Enterprise: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic”

This new Proceedings of a Workshop from the National Academies discusses the findings of a virtual meeting of leaders from government, NGOs, and the private sector that aimed to explore the nation’s public health emergency (PHE) preparedness enterprise. Discussion focused on topics like global disease surveillance, health care delivery and core public health functions, supply chain vulnerability, medical countermeasure development, and more. Download this publication for free on the National Academies’ site to learn more about the workshop and its outcomes.

“The Unintended Consequences of Information Provision: The World Health Organization and Border Restrictions during COVID-19”

Worsnop et al. discuss failures of international agreements in the context of border restrictions during the pandemic in their new article in International Studies Perspectives: “Why do some international agreements fail to achieve their goals? Rather than states’ engaging in cheap talk, evasion, or shallow commitments, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Regulations (IHR)—the agreement governing states’ and WHO’s response to global health emergencies—point to the unintended consequences of information provision. The IHR have a dual goal of providing public health protection from health threats while minimizing unnecessary interference in international traffic. As such, during major outbreaks WHO provides information about spread and severity, as well as guidance about how states should respond, primarily regarding border policies. During COVID-19, border restrictions such as entry restrictions, flight suspensions, and border closures have been commonplace even though WHO recommended against such policies when it declared the outbreak a public health emergency in January 2020. Building on findings from the 2014 Ebola outbreak, we argue that without raising the cost of disregarding (or the benefits of following) recommendations against border restrictions, information from WHO about outbreak spread and severity leads states to impose border restrictions inconsistent with WHO’s guidance. Using new data from COVID-19, we show that WHO’s public health emergency declaration and pandemic announcement are associated with increases in the number of states imposing border restrictions.”

“Ukraine: The Human Price of War”

Throughout this year, we have covered Russia’s targeting of civilians and healthcare facilities, an under-discussed topic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security recently presented “Ukraine: The Human Price of War,” a “short documentary series examining the shocking attack on the country and whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his armed forces will continue their past behavior in Syria and Chechnya – targeting civilian populations and infrastructure – including the medical sector.” The series consists of six videos covering numerous facets of this topic and featuring input from experts and professionals across the world involved in documenting and addressing these acts.

Managing Hazardous and Biohazardous Materials/Waste in the Laboratory Setting

The Chesapeake Area Biological Safety Association recently announced this technical seminar offering from Triumvirate Environmental, which will take place at 6 pm on January 10, 2023 both virtually and in-person in Gaithersburg, MD. “Laboratories can generate biohazardous and hazardous waste. Confusion is not uncommon on what the differences are when it comes to disposal and handling.  This webinar will review the differences and discuss proper handling and disposal of each type of waste.  Potential recycling options will also be discussed.” Learn more and register here.

Closing the Knowledge Gaps

“BIO-ISAC, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, will host a one-day event (with remote participation available) on January 24, 2023.”

“This gathering of thought leaders across the industry and its partners will address knowledge gaps about the bioeconomy itself. The event is expected to deliver recommendations that demonstrate the scope and breadth of industry impacts, identify specific safety needs and goals, and carve the path forward for a secure future.” Learn more and register here.

Novel Applications of Science and Technology to Address Emerging Chemical and Biological Threats

For the first time since 2019, this Gordon Research Conference is back, this time in sunny Ventura, CA. “The Chemical and Biological Defense GRC is a premier, international scientific conference focused on advancing the frontiers of science through the presentation of cutting-edge and unpublished research, prioritizing time for discussion after each talk and fostering informal interactions among scientists of all career stages. The conference program includes a diverse range of speakers and discussion leaders from institutions and organizations worldwide, concentrating on the latest developments in the field. The conference is five days long and held in a remote location to increase the sense of camaraderie and create scientific communities, with lasting collaborations and friendships. In addition to premier talks, the conference has designated time for poster sessions from individuals of all career stages, and afternoon free time and communal meals allow for informal networking opportunities with leaders in the field.” The conference will be held March 19-24, 2023. Learn more and apply here by February 19.

Weekly Trivia Question

You read the Pandora Report every week and now it’s time for you to show off what you know! The first person to send the correct answer to biodefense@gmu.edu will get a shout out in the following issue (first name last initial). For this week, we’re turning our attention to sustaining Santa Clause’s operations. In 2016, there was an outbreak of what disease in reindeers in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia?

Shout out to Georgios P. for winning last week’s trivia! The correct answer to “Who is the longest serving director of the United States’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)?” is Dr. Anthony Fauci.

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